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Natural gas is a bridge to nowhere

Natural gas is a bridge to nowhere

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04/12/2012

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Greater focus needed on methane leakagefrom natural gas infrastructure
Ramón A. Alvarez
a,1
, Stephen W. Pacala
b,1
, James J. Winebrake
c
, William L. Chameides
d
, and Steven P. Hamburg
e
a
Environmental Defense Fund, 301 Congress Ave Suite 1300, Austin, TX 78701;
b
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, 106A Guyot Hall,Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544;
c
College of Liberal Arts, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY 14623;
d
School of the Environment,Duke University, Durham, NC 27708; and
e
Environmental Defense Fund, 18 Tremont Street, Boston, MA 02108Contributed by Stephen W. Pacala, February 13, 2012 (sent for review December 21, 2011)
Natural gas is seen by many as the future of American energy: afuelthat canprovide energyindependenceandreducegreenhousegas emissions in the process. However, there has also been confu-sion about the climate implications of increased use of natural gasfor electric power and transportation. We propose and illustratetheuseoftechnologywarmingpotentialsasarobustandtranspar-ent way to compare the cumulative radiative forcing created byalternative technologies fueled by natural gas and oil or coal byusing the best available estimates of greenhouse gas emissionsfrom each fuel cycle (i.e., production, transportation and use).We find that a shift to compressed natural gas vehicles from gaso-line or diesel vehicles leads to greater radiative forcing of the cli-mate for 80 or 280 yr, respectively, before beginning to producebenefits. Compressed natural gas vehicles could produce climatebenefits on all time frames if the well-to-wheels CH
4
leakage werecapped at a level 45
70% below current estimates. By contrast,using natural gas instead of coal for electric power plants can re-duce radiative forcing immediately, and reducing CH
4
losses fromthe production and transportation of natural gas would produceeven greater benefits. There is a need for the natural gas industryand science community to help obtain better emissions data andfor increased efforts to reduce methane leakage in order to mini-mize the climate footprint of natural gas.
W
ith growing pressure to produce more domestic energy andto reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, natural gas isincreasingly seen as the fossil fuel of choice for the United Statesas it transitions to renewable sources. Recent reports in the scien-tific literature and popular press have produced confusion aboutthe climate implications of natural gas (1
5). On the one hand, ashift to natural gas is promoted as climate mitigation because ithas lower carbon per unit energy than coal or oil (6). On the otherhand, methane (CH
4
), the prime constituent of natural gas, is it-self amorepotent GHGthan carbon dioxide (CO
2
); CH
4
leakagefrom the production, transportation and use of natural gas canoffset benefits from fuel-switching.The climatic effect of replacing other fossil fuels with naturalgas varieswidely by sector(e.g., electricity generation ortranspor-tation)andbythefuelbeingreplaced(e.g.,coal,gasoline,ordieselfuel), distinctions that have been largely lacking in the policy de-bate. Estimates of the net climate implications of fuel-switchingstrategies should be based on complete fuel cycles (e.g.,
 well-to-wheels
) and account for changes in emissions of relevant ra-diative forcingagents. Unfortunately, suchanalyses are weakenedbythepaucityofempiricaldataaddressingCH
4
emissionsthroughthe natural gas supply network, hereafter referred to as CH
4
leak-age.* The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently doubled its previous estimate of CH
4
leakage from natural gassystems (6).In this paper, we illustrate the importance of accounting forfuel-cycle CH
4
leakage when considering the climate impactsof fuel-technology combinations. Using EP
s estimated CH
4
emissions from the natural gas supply, we evaluated the radiativeforcing implications of three U.S.-specific fuel-switching scenar-ios: from gasoline, diesel fuel, and coal to natural gas. A shift to natural gas and away from other fossil fuels is in-creasingly plausible because advances in horizontal drilling andhydraulic fracturing technologies have greatly expanded thecountry 
s extractable natural gas resources particularly by acces-sing gas stored in shale deep underground (7). Contrary to pre- vious estimates of CH
4
losses from the
upstream
portions of the natural gas fuel cycle (8, 9), a recent paper by Howarth etal. calculated upstream leakage rates for shale gas to be so largeas to imply higher lifecycle GHG emissions from natural gas thanfrom coal (1). (
, discusses differences between our paperand Howarth et al.) Howarth et al. estimated CH
4
emissions as apercentage of CH
4
produced over the lifecycle of a well to be 3.6
7.9% for shale gas and 1.7
6.0% for conventional gas. The EPA 
slatest estimate of the amount of CH
4
released because of leaksand venting in the natural gas network between production wellsand the local distribution network is about 570 billion cubic feetfor 2009, which corresponds to 2.4% of gross U.S. natural gasproduction (1.9
3.1% at a 95% confidence level) (6).
EP
s re-ported uncertainty appears small considering that its current va-lue is double the prior estimate, which was itself twice as high asthe previously accepted amount (9).Comparing the climate implications of CH
4
and CO
2
emis-sions is complicated because of the much shorter atmosphericlifetime of CH
4
relative to CO
2
. On a molar basis, CH
4
produces37 times more radiative forcing than CO
2
.
However, becauseCH
4
is oxidized to CO
2
with an effective lifetime of 12 yr, theintegrated, or cumulative, radiative forcings from equi-molarreleases of CO
2
and CH
4
eventually converge toward the same value. Determining whether a unit emission of CH
4
is worse forthe climate than a unit of CO
2
depends on the time frame con-sidered. Because accelerated rates of warming mean ecosystemsand humans have less time to adapt, increased CH
4
emissionsdue to substitution of natural gas for coal and oil may produceundesirable climate outcomes in the near-term.The concept of global warming potential (GWP) is commonly used to compare the radiative forcing of different gases relative
Author contributions: R.A.A., S.W.P., and S.P.H. designed research; R.A.A. performedresearch; R.A.A., S.W.P., and S.P.H. analyzed data; and R.A.A., S.W.P., J.J.W., W.L.C., andS.P.H. wrote the paper.The authors declare no conflict of interest.Freely available online through the PNAS open access option.*Challenges also exist in the quantification of
CH
4
emissions from the extraction ofcoal. We use the term
leakage
for simplicity and define it broadly to include all
CH
4
emissions in the natural gas supply, both fugitive leaks as well as vented emissions.
This represents an uncertainty range between
19% and +30% of natural gas systememissions. For
CH
4
from petroleum systems (35% of which we assign to the natural gassupply) the uncertainty is
24% to +149%; however, this is only a minor effect becausethe portion of natural gas supply that comes from oil wells is less than 20%.
One-hundred-two times on a mass basis. This value accounts for methane
s directradiative forcing and a 40% enhancement because of the indirect forcing by ozone andstratospheric water vapor (10).
1
To whom correspondence may be addressed. E-mail: pacala@princeton.edu or ralvarez@edf.org.This article contains supporting information online atwww.pnas.org/lookup/suppl/ doi:10.1073/pnas.1202407109/-/DCSupplemental.
www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1202407109 PNAS Early Edition
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to CO
2
and represents the ratio of the cumulative radiative for-cing
t
years after emission of a GHG to the cumulative radiativeforcing from emission of an equivalent quantity of CO
2
(10). TheIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) typically uses 100 yr for the calculation of GWP. Howarth et al. (1) empha-sized the 20-year GWP, which accentuates the large forcing inearly years from CH
4
emissions, whereas Venkatesh et al. (2)adopted a 100-yr GWP and Burnham et al. (4) utilized both 20-and 100-yr GWPs.GWPs were established to allow for comparisons amongGHGs at one point in time after emission but only add confusion when evaluating environmental benefits or policy tradeoffs overtime. Policy tradeoffs like the ones examined here often involvetwo or more GHGs with distinct atmospheric lifetimes. A secondlimitation of GWP-based comparisons is that they only considerthe radiative forcing of single emission pulses, which do not cap-ture the climatic consequences of real-world investment and pol-icy decisions that are better simulated as emission streams.To avoid confusion and enable straightforward comparisons of fuel-technology options, we suggest that plotting as a function of time the relative radiative forcing of the options being considered would be more useful for policy deliberations than GWPs. Thesetechnology warming potentials (TWP) require exactly the sameinputs and radiative forcing formulas used for GWP but revealtime-dependent tradeoffs inherent in a choice between alterna-tive technologies. We illustrate the value of our approach by ap-plying it to emissions of CO
2
and CH
4
from vehicles fueled withCNG compared with gasoline or diesel vehicles and from powerplants fueled with natural gas instead of coal.Wigley also analyzed changes in the relative benefits over timeof switching from coal to natural gas, but that was done in thecontext of additional complexities including specific assumptionsabout the global pace of technological substitution, emissions of sulfur dioxide and black carbon, and a specific model of global warming dueto radiative forcing (5). Wecompare ourresults withWigley 
s in the next section.
Results and Discussion
We focus on the TWPs of real-world choices faced by individuals,corporations, and policymakers about fuel-switching in the trans-port and power sectors. Each of the three curves within the panelsof Fig. 1 represents a distinct choice and its associated emissionduration: for example, whether to rent a CNG or a gasoline carfor a day (Pulse TWP); whether to purchase and operate a CNGor gasoline car for a 15-yr service life (Service-Life TWP); and whether a nation should adopt a policy to convert the gasolinefleet of cars to CNG (Fleet Conversion TWP). In each of thesecases, a TWP greater than 1 means that the cumulative radiativeforcing from choosing natural gas today is higher than a currentfuel option after
t
yr. Our results for pulse TWP at 20 and 100 yrare identical to fuel-cycle analyses using 20-year or 100-yearGWPs for CH
4
.Given EPA 
s current estimates ofCH
4
leakagefrom natural gasproduction and delivery infrastructure, in addition to a modestCH
4
contribution from the vehicle itself (for which few empiricaldata are available), CNG-fueled vehicles are not a viable mitiga-tion strategy for climate change.
§
Converting a fleet of gasolinecars to CNG increases radiative forcing for 80 yr before any netclimate benefits are achieved; the comparable cross-over pointfor heavy-duty diesel vehicles is nearly 300 yr.Stated differently, converting a fleet of cars from gasoline toCNG would result in numerous decades of more rapid climatechange because of greater radiative forcing in the early years afterthe conversion. This is eventually offset by a modest benefit. After 150 yr, a CNG fleet would have produced about 10% lesscumulative radiative forcing than a gasoline fleet
a benefitequivalent to a fuel economy improvement of 3 mpg in a 30 mpgfleet. CNG vehicles fare even less favorably in comparison toheavy-duty diesel vehicles.In contrast to the transportation cases, a fleet of new, com-bined-cycle natural gas power plants reduces radiative forcingon all time frames, relative to new coal plants burning low-CH
4
coal
assuming current estimates of leakage rates (Fig. 1
C
). Theconclusions differ primarily because of coal
s higher carbon con-tent relative to petroleum fuels; however, fuel-cycle CH
4
leakagecan also affect results. (As discussed elsewhere in this paper, ouranalysis considered only the emissions of CH
4
and CO
2
. In
, we examine the effect of different CH
4
leak rates in the coaland natural gas fuel cycles for the electric power scenario.)To provide guidance to industry and policymakers, we alsodetermined the maximum well-to-wheels or well-to-burner-tipleakage rate needed to ensure net climate benefits on all timeframes after fuel-switching to natural gas (see Fig. 2). For exam-ple, if the well-to-wheels leakage was reduced to an effective leak rate of 1.6% of natural gas produced (approximately 45% belowour estimate of current leakage of 3.0%), CNG cars would result
Fig.1.
Technologywarmingpotential(TWP)forthree setsofnaturalgas fuel-switchingscenarios.(
 A
)CNGlight-duty carsvs.gasolinecars; (
B
)CNGheavy-dutyvehicles vs. diesel vehicles; and (
) combined-cycle natural gas plants vs. supercritical coal plants using low-CH
4
coal. The three curves within each frame si-mulate real-world choices, including a single emissions pulse (dotted lines); emissions for the full service life of a vehicle or power plant (15 and 50 years,respectively,dashedlines);andemissionsfromaconvertedfleetcontinuingindefinitely(solidlines).Forthepulseandservicelifeanalyses,ourscenariosassumethat the natural gas choice reverts back to the incumbent choice before the switch took place; for the fleet conversion analysis we assume that a natural gasvehicle or power plant is replaced by an identical unit at the end of its service life.
§
The
CH
4
from operation of a CNG automobile was estimated to be 20 times the value forgasoline vehicles (11), which is approximately 20% of the well-to-pump
CH
4
leakage on a
kg
mmBtu
basis. This assumption deserves much further scrutiny.
2 of 6
www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1202407109 Alvarez et al.
 
in climate benefits immediately and improve over time.
ForCNG to immediately reduce climate impacts from heavy-duty  vehicles, well-to-wheels leakage must be reduced below 1%.Fig. 2
C
shows that new natural gas power plants produce net cli-mate benefits relative to efficient, new coal plants using low-gassy coal on all time frames as long as leakage in the naturalgas system is less than 3.2% from well through delivery at a powerplant. Fig. 2 also shows, for a range of leakage rates, the numberof years needed to reach the
cross-over point
when net climatebenefits begin to occur after a fuel-technology choice is made.We emphasize that our calculations assume an average leakagerate for the entire U.S. natural gas supply (as well for coalmining). Much work needs to be done to determine actual emis-sions with certainty and to accurately characterize the site-to-site variability in emissions. However, given limited current evidence,it is likely that leakage at individual natural gas well sites is highenough, when combined with leakage from downstream opera-tions, to make the total leakage exceed the 3.2% thresholdbeyond which gas becomes worse for the climate than coal forat least some period of time.
||
Our analysis of reported routineemissions for over 250 well sites with no compressor engines inBarnett Shale gas well sites in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2010 revealeda highly skewed distribution of emissions, with 10% of well sitesaccounting for nearly 70% of emissions (see
).** Naturalgas leak rates calculated based on operator-reported, daily gasproduction data at these well sites ranged from 0% to 5%, withsix sites out of 203 showing leak rates of 2.6% or greater due toroutine emissions alone.
††
Our analysis of coal-to-natural gas fuel-switching does not con-sider potential changes in sulfate aerosols and black carbon,short-lived climate forcers previously shown to affect the climateimplications of such fuel-switching scenarios (5, 13). Recently,Wigley concluded that coal-to-gas switching on a global scale would result in increased warming on a global scale in the shortterm, based on examining a set of scenarios with a climate modelthat included both the increased warming produced by CH
4
losses from the natural gas fuel cycle and the additional coolingthat occurs due to SO
2
emissions and the sulfate aerosols they form as a result of burning coal (5). The applicability of Wigley 
sglobal conclusion to the United States or any other individualcountry is limited due to the reliance on global emissions scenar-ios. Analyses such as Wigley 
s, which model the climate impactsof all climate forcing emissions, are useful to evaluate specificfuel-switching scenarios; however, their ultimate relevance topolicymakers and fleet owners will be determined by the fidelity  with which they reflect actual emissions from all phases of eachfuel cycle at the relevant geographic scale (e.g., national, conti-nental, or global). The SO
2
emissions that Wigley assumed aremuch higher than those of the current fleet of coal electrical gen-eration plants in the United States, where SO
2
emissions declinedby more than 50% between 2000 and 2010.
‡‡
Moreover, due tostate and federal pollution abatement requirements, U.S. SO
2
emissions are projected to continue declining, to roughly 30%of 2000 levels by 2014 (see
). This means that by 2014the projected sulfur emissions from the U.S. coal electrical gen-eration plant fleet,
3
TgS
GtC, will approach the emission factorthat Wigley assumed the global fleet would reach in 2060(
2
TgS
GtC), when he projected the climate benefits of fuel-switching might begin, and significantly lower than Wigley 
s esti-mated 2010 value of 
12
TgS
GtC. Accounting for the lower SO
2
from U.S. coal plants in an integrated way will result in greaternet climate impacts of using coal than reported by Wigley and inturn the net benefits of fuel-switching will occur much soonerthan he projected.Increasingly, this will also be the case globally. The productionof sulfur aerosols as a result of coal combustion causes such ne-gative impacts on human and ecosystem health that it is prudentto assume that policies will continue to be rapidly implemented inmany, if not most, countries to reduce such emissions at a muchfaster pace than assumed by Wigley. Indeed, it has been reportedthat China has already installed SO
2
scrubbers on power plantsaccounting for over 70% of the nation's installed coal power ca-pacity (14), such that SO
2
emissions from power plants in 2010 were 58% below 2004 levels (15). The SO
2
emissions factor from
A B C
Fig. 2.
Maximum
well-to-wheels
natural gas leak rate as a function of the number of years needed to achieve net climate benefits after choosing a CNGoption inlieu of(
 A
)gasolinecars; (
B
) heavy-dutydieselvehicles; and(
) coalpowerplants.For
 A
and
B
,the maximum leakageis the sumof losses fromthewellthrough the distribution system plus losses from the CNG vehicle itself (well-to-wheels); for
, the maximum leakage is from the well through the transmissionsystem where most power plants receive their fuel. When leak rates are less than the y-intercept, a fuel switch scenario would result in net climate benefitsbeginning immediately. The three curves within each frame follow the conventions outlined in Fig. 1 and represent: single emissions pulses (dotted lines); theservice life of a vehicle or a power plant, 15 or 50 years, respectively (dashed lines); and a permanent fleet conversion (solid lines).
Our estimate that current well-to-wheels leakage is 3.0% of gas produced assumes that2.4% of gas produced is lost between the well and the local distribution system(based onEPA
s 2011 GHG emission inventory) and that 0.6% is due to emissions duringrefueling and from the vehicle itself. For further discussion of the climatic implicationof natural gas vehicles see (12).
||
EPA
s GHG inventory suggests leakage from natural gas processing and transmission is0.6% of gas produced, meaning production leakage must be greater than 2.6% forthe total fuel cycle leakage of a power plant receiving fuel from a transmission pipelineto exceed 3.2%.**Siteswithcompressorengineswereexcludedduetothecontractor
sassumptionthatallengines in the City were uncontrolled, which leads to erroneous emission estimates.
††
Routine emissions do not include such occasional events as well completions and blow-downs. Only 203 of the 254 sites had data for gas production. An Excel spreadsheet con-taining the Fort Worth data and our calculations is provided inDataset S1.
‡‡
EmissionsqueryperformedonDecember5,2011,usingtheDataandMapsfeatureoftheU.S. Environmental Protection Agency
s Clean Air Markets Web page (http:// camddataandmaps.epa.gov/gdm/ ).
Alvarez et al. PNAS Early Edition
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